Written by Andrea Thaxton
West Virginia State Capitol at sunset. **Image from: https://www.facebook.com/wvlegislature/timeline Photo credit: WV Legislative Photographer Perry Bennett
In the land of equal opportunities for all, it seems that “freedom of religion” could soon infringe upon the rights and benefits of others. My home state of West Virginia is quite a display of contrasts, and I am not just referring to our remarkable landscape. In some areas we lead the Nation, and in others we are desperately lagging behind. Just when we do something groundbreaking, such as legalize gay marriage, the West Virginia legislature decides to work towards passing a bill titled the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” or RFRA for short.
RFRA is a bill that would protect the religious freedoms of any individual or entity from any local or state laws because it may substantially burden them on a religious basis. This includes, but is not limited to, withholding benefits; assessing criminal, civil, or administrative penalties or damages; or exclusion from governmental programs or access to governmental facilities. Seems fairly straight-forward, right? America, the land of the free, protecting the religious freedoms of its citizens.
However, many people and companies within the community believe this bill specifically targets the LGBT community. If permitted to pass, this bill would actually allow the LGBT community to be discriminated against under the guise of practicing religious freedom. As bad as that sounds, this bill could potentially have an even darker side. Since it is so broadly written, it has the power to impact child safety, public health, criminal justice cases, and businesses. Below are some examples provided by Fairness West Virginia:
- Child Safety – A pastor who helped kidnap a child in Virginia from her legal guardian cited religious freedom as his legal defense. In New Mexico, a local religious leader cited the state’s RFRA when he appealed a conviction for sexually abusing two teenagers. A federal judge just held that the federal RFRA prevented a full investigation of possible child labor law violations because the individual under investigation said that his religious beliefs forbade him from discussing those matters with the government.
- Public Health – Pharmacists could turn away people seeking to fill valid prescriptions including birth control medicine, HIV prevention treatment, or hormone therapy based on religious beliefs.
- Criminal Justice – Police officers across the country have used religious freedom as an excuse to refuse orders they claimed offended their personal religious views, including a police officer who asserted a religious objection to his community policing duties at a mosque and an officer who claimed “religious liberty” in his refusal to police a gay pride parade.
- Business – Employees could sue their employers on religious grounds. Small businesses could turn away Catholics, Jews, Muslims, African Americans, members of the LGBT community, or anyone who does not support their religious beliefs.
- Human Rights – State and municipal nondiscrimination laws that go above and beyond the federal Human Rights Act could be dramatically undermined as they pertain to minorities who face discrimination.
Indiana implemented a similar law in 2015 which gained a lot of negative community response. Many businesses, affluent individuals, and state have publicly boycotted Indiana since then stating they do not support discrimination. Indiana has lost a minimum of $60 million since implementing the law because the bill inhibits a business-friendly environment.
Delegate Mike Pushkin speaking on the House floor. **Image from: https://www.facebook.com/wvlegislature/ Photo credit: WV Legislative Photographer Perry Bennett
West Virginia House of Delegates member Mike Pushkin took a firm stand against RFRA during the House floor session. (Click here to view the video.) He made a strong case with his fellow delegates by pointing out that he is currently the only member of a religious minority elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates. “I’m Jewish. Religious freedom is very important to me. If it wasn’t for religious freedom, I wouldn’t be here,” he stressed. “In my lifetime, I cannot tell you what religious persecution is because I’m an American.” Delegate Pushkin adds that his family fled “real religious persecution” in Eastern Europe.
A movement of support to stop RFRA has quickly moved through the community. Businesses and individuals have been publicly showing their stance by hanging “All Kinds Are Welcome Here” signs on their windows in the shape of our fair state. The bill has moved from the House to the Senate where it will be further deliberated. I hope, for the sake of our state, that we continue moving forward into the future and not back into the stone-ages with this out-of-date discriminatory bill.
UPDATE March 3, 2016: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been rejected by the West Virginia Senate with a resounding vote of 7-27!
Fairness WV. (2016). Emergency Public Hearing on Jan 28th: HB 4012 “License to Discriminate Bill”. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from http://fairnesswv.org/emergency-public-hearing-hb-4012-license-to-discriminate-bill/.
West Virginia Legislature. (2016). West Virginia Legislature 2016 Regular Session Introduced House Bill 4012. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from http://www.legis.state.wv.us/Bill_Status/bills_text.cfm?billdoc=hb4012%20intr.htm&yr=2016&sesstype=RS&i=4012.
WV House Democrats. (2016). Delegate Pushkin on RFRA. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDD5n0eweBk.